It’s strange to see the smile on John Carter’s face these days. Dr. Carter, as you know, has been with us since season one—in fact he is the last main character from the original cast. Still boyish, despite the ten years of blood and trauma, Carter seems, recently, to have regained a layer of baby fat as well as a layer of something you don’t see much on ER—contentment, which is rarer than osteogenesis imperfecta in this world.
It was just last season that our man Carter went off to the Congo, ostensibly to rescue Luka, but really to escape the pressure that had devolved upon him when his grandmother died and left him in charge of the Carter Foundation, the Carter mansion and the Carter millions. Gamma was a good old soul; she’d been married to George Plimpton, like, forever and when he up and died a couple seasons back, she kinda lost a step. But she was always there for John, through thick and thin. That said, Gamma had never completely understood what Carter saw in emergency medicine and, all of a sudden, neither did Carter himself. It was as if instead of being delivered from the burden of her doubt, however well she’d managed to keep it under wraps, with her passing it was suddenly dropped onto his shoulders
It would take strong medicine to calm this crisis and, as luck would have it, the Congo delivered. There, in deepest darkest, Carter discovered another side of himself—a resourceful, intuitive almost reckless side. He threw his money around to solve problems, tumbled in and out of love, and then fell hard for Thandie Newton, anti-AIDS crusader and fellow doctor. They had a few alcohol-fueled political debates after hours, to kind of establish their mutual compatibility and then, with little foreplay, they marshaled their combined medical know-how and conceived a child.
This unexpected event, rather than sending Carter into a panic, seemed to settle the man and make him somehow more sure of what he had only thought was true; he proposed to Thandie, she accepted and they came back to the states to have the wedding and the baby.
So here is Dr. John Carter, our friend for ten long seasons, suddenly all pulled together. He steps up at the foundation, he drops a full-on bolus of attitude on the empty suits there, stands up to his father, donates the family mansion for use as a health care research facility, and buys an awesome but reasonable place downtown where he and Thandie start building a dream.
He is happy, to put it in a word. Or, to put it in another word, boring. He’s put on a couple pounds, which suit him just fine, and he still appears in the ER, his face rising moon-like over Pratt’s shoulder to whisper some quiet, condescending advice. He does his work, he does it well, and then he gets the hell out.
Psychologists have done these experiments in perception where they project an image onto a subject’s retina so that the image doesn’t move relative to the retina. Is that clear? I know that sounds unlikely but they have done this, or at least they’ve written articles that make it sound like they’ve done this and, for the moment, I am going to take them at their word. And do you know what these experiments show? Well, it’s pretty shocking. Here’s what Freerk A. Lootsma, a respected authority on the subject, has to say about it:
“Usually, when an eye moves, the image of a stationary object shifts across the back of the eye, the so-called retina. Images of moving objects also undergo some retinal slippage since visual tracking (following an object with the eye) tends to be imperfect. When retinal slippage is eliminated, that is, when the image is continually projected onto the same part of the retina by a contact lens attached to the cornea, subjects see parts of the image disappear. Ultimately, the image vanishes completely. People become functionally blind to retinally stabilized images (italics mine). The light-sensitive cells in the retina fatigue or adapt rapidly if they are continually stimulated in an unchanging fashion. The motion of the eye prevents this fatigue or adaptation.”
This is such a beautiful paragraph in so many ways that I hardly know where to begin. First off, when Freerk calls out the back of the eye—“the so-called retina”—you can just feel the heat and you have to wonder what the hell is the back story there. I picture a man who has spent years kinda hanging out, getting to know the back of the eye, spending all his time with it, more or less dedicating his life to it and then, one day, maybe he’s sitting on the can and he picks up a journal and starts reading something about this retina thing and he’s, maybe, half-way into the article when he realizes, holy crap, this is all about the back of the eye, his back of the eye, going around under some tarted-up Italian name. The heartache.
Secondly, I love the sentence “People become functionally blind to retinally stabilized images.” I love it because it gave me the opportunity to write “italics mine,” which I’ve always wanted to do. But mostly I love it because it’s good clear writing; just try to convey that idea in simpler words.
Next, at the risk of going off on a tangent, the last two lines of this paragraph contain some wisdom about relationships. Just as the light-sensitive cells in the retina fatigue or adapt rapidly if they are continually stimulated in an unchanging fashion, likewise the cells in our body that are sensitive to romance, these ever-so-sensitive organs, if persistently stimulated in an unchanging fashion, will cease to perceive the stimulation.
We’ve all seen the famous sports or entertainment figure captured in the so-called Living section of our favorite rag appearing at some charity event or other with the relentlessly slutty girlfriend on his arm. Rather than envy this man, we should pity him. Yes, pity, I say, because it is almost axiomatic that the more beautiful the companion, the more likely that the continual stimulation of her presence delivered in an unchanging fashion will soon enough render him blind to her charms. There is no cure for this fatigue, as Freerk reminds us, save the habitual motion of the eye. And what sort of life is that?
Gentlemen, do you see what Freerk, and the limitations of our ocular development, are trying to tell us? The more you concentrate on an object, the more it tends to disappear. Hence, the things that are most central to our lives are those things we begin to lose sight of. Do not wait for crisis or calamity to come in and force you to see those you love in a new light. Resolve to look at your love anew each and every day—try to see again what it was you saw before; try to see what it is you have yet to discover. You will not always succeed. But you won’t always fail either.
But, anyway, my point about Carter was simpler. As we’ve established, if something doesn’t keep moving, it disappears, and Dr. Carter is in danger of disappearing. Coming at this series as I do, from the future as it were, I know that season 11 is Carter’s last. I could speculate on all sorts of outside considerations that might be working to convince Noah Wyle that John Carter needs to hang up his stethoscope—fatigue, a desire to do movies, a feud over money, a wish to spend more time with his family. I get that. That’s reality.
But don’t leave a character like this hanging, just marking time. Carter’s given more than a decade of service to this organization—hard work, exciting work, compassionate work—and now we’re supposed to stand by and watch him moon about, quietly grinning in the background, slowly fading away, while Kovac and Pratt preen and strut and butt heads in the battle for resident heart-throb?
It’s a sad and disappointing end to a long, beautiful run.
I hope that should I ever find myself in a similar situation professionally, I will have the sense and good grace to know when to call it.